Sunday, April 07, 2002

Bell makers question state contract

Verdin got Bicentennial work without competitive bidding

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — Ohio's Bicentennial Bell program, which is a big hit with counties and historical societies, has drawn criticism from businesses who question how the state awarded the program's $1.7 million contract.

        Cincinnati's Verdin Co. was awarded the contract in August to cast 88 bronze bells — one for each county — on site to commemorate Ohio's 200th birthday next year.

[photo] Verdin Co. bell master Phil Dravage adds final highlights last year to Washington County's Ohio Bicentennial Bell.
(Associated Press file photo)
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        The company made seven bells last year and plans the remaining 81 over the next two years. The next scheduled casting is Friday in Manchester in Adams County.

        The state says the 160-year-old East End company was the only business with the size, expertise and employees necessary for the project, though some bell makers disagree. Verdin is charging the Ohio Bicentennial Commission $19,500 per bell. The commission is funded by taxpayer dollars.

        The program involves transporting a furnace, bronze ingots, a mold, casting sand, polishing equipment and other items and then casting the 250-pound bells in two days.

        Verdin, with about 100 employees, has four full-time employees working on the Bicentennial Bell program.

        “Verdin was thoroughly researched as far as their ability to perform under the contract, and they've been doing an outstanding job,” said Fred Stratmann, a spokesman for the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.

        Mr. Stratmann said the state sent e-mail inquiries to other bell companies about the contract, which was not bid competitively. The commission is under the Ohio Historical Society, whose guidelines recommend — but do not require — competitive bids.

        Richard Watson and William Meeks, former Verdin employees who formed their own company in 1993 in Georgetown, about 40 miles southeast of Cincinnati, say they never heard from the state.

        “We were quite disappointed we weren't given the opportunity,” Mr. Meeks said. “We did want a shot at it, and I'm not sure we were given a fair shot at it. I think it was pretty much a done deal as far as Verdin was concerned.”

        Jim Verdin, the company's president, said he believes his company would have won the project if it had been bid competitively.

        “Nobody else in the world — let alone Ohio — has the capability to put on a project like this, and we were even questionable ourselves,” Mr. Verdin said. “We had to bring on some outside people to help us.”

        While casting bells over two days is not unheard of, doing it on the road, away from a foundry, is very unusual, said Steve Robison, technical director for the Des Plaines, Ill.-based American Foundry Association, a trade association for the metal casting industry.

        Although Verdin is known as a bell maker, it did not cast bells before winning the contract. Instead, it received bells from a Dutch company, then did the finishing work, including adding clappers, wooden yokes and wheels the bells swing on.

        The company completed the 66,000-pound Peace Bell in Newport, the world's largest free-swinging bell, which was cast in France for the Millennium celebrations.

        Mr. Watson said he believes his six-person company could have handled the project, although he acknowledged he would have had to hire more workers.

        The contract should have been open to anyone who wanted to apply, said Rep. Kerry Metzger, a New Philadelphia Republican who has criticized the financial operations of the Ohio Historical Society.

        “Dollars are so short right now for anything, we ought to be trying to get the biggest bang for the buck that we can,” Mr. Metzger said.

        The first Bicentennial bell was cast in Marietta.

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